(In this series, I’ve been trying to explain my approach to “critical thinking” in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” I addressed the fake news first, showing how it’s really an old problem well-addressed by Chomsky in the mid-80s in his “Necessary Illusions.” The question of alternative facts was suggested even longer ago by Plato in his “Allegory of the Cave.” Currently, I’m tracing my own experience with alternative facts, showing how my own set of convictions has changed from childhood, through my education in preparation for entry into the priesthood, and later during my graduate studies in Rome. This week, let me tell you about changes in consciousness that took place after I left the priesthood, working first for the Christian Appalachian Project, then teaching my first few years at Berea College, and via my first sabbatical in Brazil in 1984.The changes, I’m alleging, brought me through development stages identified by Ken Wilber as egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism. This week I continue my description of my evolving world-centric understanding. The hope is that my story might help you reflect on your own similar development as a critical thinker.)
After returning to the United States, with my doctoral degree in hand, I spent a “year of discernment” to decide whether or not to remain a Columban priest. Working as a priest for The Christian Appalachian Project in the foothills of Kentucky’s Cumberland mountains gave me first-hand experience of the poverty I had read about in Michael Harrington’s The Other America. It also introduced me to Berea College, where I would eventually spend the next 40 years teaching. Berea had been founded by Christian abolitionists in 1855. It retained its commitment to inter-racial justice, to the Appalachian region, and gradually accepted a revised and remarkably open understanding of Christian faith.
Those commitments required me to teach a first-year General Studies course called “Issues and Values.” And that meant learning about black history, women’s liberation, world religions, the environmental crisis, and the issue of world hunger. Faculty development seminars helped prepare us to teach texts including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “The Seneca Falls Resolutions,” the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and Food First by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins. The course was life-changing for my students – and for me.
Even more so was a two semester Great Books course, “Religious and Historical Perspectives” (RH&P) which I began teaching my third year at Berea. Required of all sophomores, the course had a dozen or so sections staffed by professors recruited from across the curriculum. The unspoken rule among them seemed to be “Never admit that you don’t know everything.” This put me at a considerable disadvantage. For the truth is, though I had taken innumerable courses in (mostly Church) history, I still didn’t really understand it. I couldn’t see the pattern. To me, history was quite boring; it seemed like one damn thing after another – most of which I couldn’t remember.
All of that changed with RH&P. Like “Issues and Values,” the course centralized faculty development seminars in which colleagues from the fields of history, English, sociology, economics, biology, physics, religion, and political science spent the first three weeks of our summer vacations reading, studying, and discussing topics like the medieval period, the scientific revolution, Marxism, apocalyptic literature, and evolution. That prepared us to teach our students primary sources including the Bible and authors like Hesiod, Homer, Tacitus, Cicero, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, Kant, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Swift, Mary Shelly, Einstein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was the best educational experience of my life. For the first time, I found myself understanding history and its patterns. In particular, my study of Marx and “The Communist Manifesto” made even clearer to me the ethnocentrism of my previous education. I began to realize that I had spent my life studying the rationalizers and defenders of the elite capitalist establishment. I had been taught to despise the philosophers and historians of the working class like Marx himself. My long years in the classroom had given me an understanding of the world alien to my own class roots.
I was gaining distance from my ethnocentrism. As I later would put it in my Ten Rules of Critical Thinking, I finally saw the value of respecting history. I was already nearly 30.
My insights from R&HP were deepened when in 1983-84 (at the age of 43) I took my first sabbatical and traveled to Brazil. My studies there did wonders for my personal growth and unfolding understanding of facts, truth and critical thinking as essentially relative to one’s stage of personal development.
My chosen task in Brazil had been to pursue post-doctoral studies in the field of liberation theology, which had become a central interest of mine. In Rome I had been introduced to the topic. It was part of what had begun broadening my horizons there. I discovered it to be a strain of discourse about God as imagined by impoverished Christians in the former European colonies especially in Latin America, but also in Africa and South Asia. Liberation theology emerged from peasants, factory workers, students and housewives who found in the Bible a reflection of their own lives and an inspiration to work for social change. In the stories of the ancient Hebrews they saw people enslaved and colonized as they had been. They discovered in the Book of Exodus a God whose concern was to liberate such slaves and install them in a land “flowing with milk and honey.”
Similarly, in Jesus the exploited found a champion who promised them a place in this-worldly Kingdom of God, where everything would be turned upside-down. The poor would become solvent, while the rich would be dethroned; the first would be last, while the last would be first. For liberation theologians, the Kingdom of God is what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Moreover, in Jesus Latin America’s beggars, street people, women, peasants, factory workers, and students recognized a kindred spirit. Like them, he was poor and born under a cruel colonizing power. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother, brown-skinned and a friend of prostitutes and sinners. He was homeless at birth and an immigrant in Egypt in his early years. Later he became an enemy of the state. He experienced constant surveillance, and was considered a terrorist. Jesus finished, like so many of Brazil’s poor during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, a victim of torture and capital punishment.
As we’ll see next week, liberation theology profoundly changed the “facts” of my spirituality. Joined with what I had learned about Appalachia and western history, it readied for even more profound transformations in consciousness that yet awaited me. My Third World travels had just begun. They would provide the catalyst.
(Next week: I sit at the feet of the liberation theologians I had been reading for years.)